Commissioned by GE and Dogs of Desire | c. 10 mins.
GE kindly invited me to visit a wind farm where I climbed one of its giant wind turbines. It was an incredible experience to be inside that massive machine, where I could hear echoing sounds of various mechanical parts at work. It took me 30 minutes to climb it, and once I reached the top and stepped on the outer shell, I saw this really gorgeous view, which took the clanky and metallic sounds out of my mind and gave room to another soundscape: The wind.
Windland explores the relationship between nature and the human made world, the evolution of our basic needs into a complex and connected society - fast paced and highly demanding of the world’s natural resources. Structured in three parts, the piece begins with effects to evoke a sunset, filling the space with an eerie atmosphere, which grows into a song. The song, with Portuguese lyrics by Vinicius Castro, represents a melding of different time periods coming together to bridge the old - and the new. The finale illustrates the rapid and ever changing world we live in, with bursts of outpouring energy and connectivity which are powered by phenomenon we cannot directly see.
On Wednesday afternoon at General Electric in Schenectady, employees were welcomed to the private rehearsal of such a piece. The song, titled “Windland Suite,” was commissioned by GE Renewable Energy to be written about its wind turbines. It will have its official premiere at the Albany Symphony American Music Festival on Friday. This unique collaboration between science and art came about through Gemma Allen, a senior portfolio analyst for GE Wind Services, who also sits on the board of the Albany Symphony Orchestra. Allen was discussing the festival’s environmental theme with ASO music director David Alan Miller, who brainstormed several topics like earth, air and water. “I was like, ‘and the wind, right?’ “Allen said, “because I work with wind.” Soon after, composer Clarice Assad was commissioned to write the piece about GE’s wind turbines. Miller said there were no parameters for the length or style for the piece. There was only one request: GE insisted that Assad take a trip to a Cape Cod wind farm and experience the 40-story climb to the top one its wind turbines.
“It was an amazing experience because I don’t think many civilians get to do that,” Assad said. “Before going, I had no idea what I was going to write and I had a very vague idea of the kind of sounds I wanted, but not really as clear as it got when I actually did the climb and heard all the wind.” Assad described the “chamber-y and echo-y metal clanking machine sound” of the inside of the turbine, but also the sound of nature that surrounds the wind farm on the outside.
“I made it so this piece starts with nature elements and finishes with the machine and the electricity, giving energy to the world,” she said. At GE on Wednesday, Miller conducted the piece while Assad, an experienced jazz singer, sang lyrics in Portuguese for the second movement. The suite encompasses three movements: Twilight, Escultores do Vento (Portuguese for “Sculptures of the Wind”), and Flow. Assad said the first movement was meant to reflect the sounds of nature, interpreted through percussion sounds and wind and brass players blowing softly through their instruments.
The second movement is the song of the wind, in which Assad brings her own voice and scat-like vocalizations to the mix. The third movement represents the flow of electricity created by the turbine, Assad said. “I think another composer would have been like, ‘Well why do I have to go up, can’t I just look at pictures of a wind turbine?’ ” said Miller, “but she really wanted to have the experiential aspect of it.”
Assad and Miller ran through the piece with Dogs of Desire, the ASO group that will be performing the piece at the festival on Friday. It was the first time Assad was actually hearing piece aloud, and she watched the orchestra with careful and focused attention. After the first run through the second movement, she stopped the group to suggest speeding up the tempo.
With less than two days until the performance, Assad plans to spend time putting the finishing touches on “Windland Suite” with the group. Assad said she’s excited with the result, and now just needs time to find the right rhythm with the performers. Allen was also excited with the result of her brainchild, and said she already bought tickets to see the performance Friday.
“We loved it,” she said excitedly.
Allen also said that Dogs of Desire will be the perfect group to perform the piece with its contemporary and edgy style. “Dogs of Desire is like our alternative group,” Allen said. “It’s got this modern electronic kind of edge which fits [GE].” The festival, which kicks off this afternoon, has double the number of events this year than it has in previous years, according to Miller.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had an actual corporation commission a piece from us,” he said. “The idea that GE was actually willing to create a piece of art, to pay for it, to commission a piece of art is really unique.”